Can Stress Make You Sick?

Marie Tano

When I was about 13 years old, my mother was diagnosed with a non-aggressive form of breast cancer. I did not see the magnitude of the sickness at the time, which was why her explanation of it was so easily accepted. I remember her saying a couple of days after her diagnosis that the reason she became ill with cancer was due to the amount of stress she was putting herself through. Looking back as an older college student, this explanation seemed a bit too far-fetched to me, which is why I looked into it further. My research discovered that while there is no specific scientific finding that states that a person’s stress levels can give themselves cancer, there are a variety of illnesses that can manifest themselves through stress, anxiety, and general thoughts.

The first way in which stress has had ties to actual illness is most notably found in hypochondria. In this disorder, people seem to possess an obsession with the idea of having a serious medical condition, despite it being undiagnosed. Hypochondriacs worry about any physical or psychological symptoms they detect with their body, ignoring how severe or minor the symptom may or may not be, for a period of over six months. They are even convinced that they have, or are about to be diagnosed with, a serious illness. Hypochondriacs may still be alarmed over their supposed illness even after a physician has evaluated them.

Conversion disorder is a mental condition in which a person has an actual physical symptom, such as blindness, paralysis, or other nervous system/neurologic symptoms that cannot be explained by an evaluation from a medical doctor or a physician. While the specific cause of conversion disorder has not yet been found, researchers believe that it develops as a way for your brain to deal with an emotional strife. It is triggered by stressful situations and the symptoms usually develop suddenly. For example, a person falling off of a bike may feel paralysis in their arm despite not being injured.

Body dysmorphic disorder is characterized by a person spends a lot of time concerned about a seemingly physical defect in their appearance. With this disorder, a person might also have a mild physical defect but the concern about it is out of proportion. People with body dysmorphic disorder may use makeup and/or may even go as far to consult a cosmetic surgeon to have their defect corrected. There has been a discussion on whether this disorder is related to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa–body dysmorphia can appear in individuals suffering from an eating disorder.

Pain disorder is similar to conversion disorder: a person has a persistent pain that cannot be attributed to a physical disorder. The full, scientific title of the disorder is “psychogenic pain disorder,” which highlights the fact that this disorder is associated with psychological issues in a person’s brain. If a person has this disorder, all other causes or sources of their pain must be debunked.

Another illness, somatization, is when physical symptoms are caused by psychological or emotional factors. For instance, many people have occasional headaches caused by mental stress. However, the mind is not causing an illness in actuality. When a person experiences somatization, illness is expressed as imagined physical symptoms. All of these disorders that have been mentioned above fall under the category of somatoform disorders, which are extreme versions of the somatization disorder. As they all fall under the same tree, all these disorders are treatable through methods that range from some form of therapy (talk therapy, psychotherapy, etc.) to certain medications.

All in all, stress has been said to have the ability to alter hormone levels in the body which can then affect the immune system. However, there is no evidence that these changes could lead to certain forms of cancer, refuting my mother’s aforementioned claim. Despite this conclusion, stress does for a fact play a dangerous role in the formation of other illnesses that can affect people in tangible and detectable ways.

Edited by: Kaylynn Crawford and Karen Yung